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The Most Subversive Performances of 2009

The Most Subversive Performances of 2009 (photo)

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In his 1966 essay entitled “The Subverters,” Manny Farber hoped “for a new award at the year’s end: Most Subversive Actor.” His complete film criticism, “Farber On Film,” was published this year, and in his honor I’m submitting a list of five nominees for this wished-for fake trophy. But his definition of “subversive” is a tricky one — at the beginning of the essay, he describes the “subversive nature of the medium: the flash-bomb vitality that one scene, actor, or technician injects across the grain of a film.”

For Farber, movies are complex mechanisms built upon the collision of artistic temperaments, not monoliths that can be encapsulated in a single theme, performance or mood. So he focuses on the small, telling details that exist on the outskirts of the plot, thrilling to actors who “can ply around the edges, trying to budge a huge, flabby movie script”. It’s the marvel of individual expression breaking through a multiplicity of voices — directors, set designers, writers — that he deems subversive, and I hope this list captures the spirit of this thought. [Spoilers ahead for “Zombieland.”]

12182009_Gamer2.jpgMichael C. Hall in “Gamer”

As Ken Castle, a guffawing young Southern tech-tycoon, Michael C. Hall provides the charismatically evil center for Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s deliriously messy “Gamer.” A Mark Cuban-type billionaire, Castle is the inventor of “Society” and “Slayers,” two live-action video games where players control real human beings. “Society” is his porno version of “The Sims,” while “Slayers” is his first-person shooter and PPV smash hit. Hall oozes his way on-screen with an ingratiating tenor that drawls out corporate double-talk with an ease and smirk that makes everything he says sound like a dirty joke. The key to his performance, though, is the whiplash-inducing quality of his movements. He continually starts in a relaxed position, echoing the molasses-slow speed of his voice, until he lands on a point of emphasis, when he curls up his lip or wields his hands like a pen knife, slashing the air like he’s slicing open a patient. These pinprick movements pay off in an astonishing fashion in the final sequence, when he pantomimes the angular, jerky moves of a puppet to the tune of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” mocking the power he has over his human game pieces.

12182009_TheGoods.jpgKathryn Hahn in “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard”

With quiet indignity, Kathryn Hahn is becoming the most fearless comedic actress in Hollywood. After stealing “Step Brothers” out from under Will Ferrell with her raucously violent sexuality, she sketched another dark portrait of the female id in “The Goods, ” a hit-or-miss gag reel that killed every time Hahn appeared on-screen. She plays Babs Merrick, part of a team of traveling used car salespeople who rent out their services to struggling franchises. Hahn aims for a kind of blowsy cynicism with the heavily made-up Merrick, persistently pouting her lips and implanting her hands on her hips to emphasize this loner’s fading sensuality. Hahn has an unerring sense of how to push her self-destructive characters over the edge. She wields a cutting deadpan that escalates quickly into sheer panic – as in her fruitless pursuit of a manly-looking ten-year old (Rob Riggle), which has her flap her lids and bite her lips before exploding into ecstatic vulgarities that would make Lenny Bruce blush.

12182009_GentlemenBroncos.jpgJemaine Clement in “Gentlemen Broncos”

Jemaine Clement and director Jared Hess have created an entrancingly deluded character in Ronald Chevalier, a blithering idiot highlight in this otherwise blandly amiable misfire. A sci-fi writer who dabbles in erotic art and plagiarism, he’s equal parts bombast and insecurity, papering over his manifest failures with feathered helmet hair and an absolute lack of self-awareness (he wears a Bluetooth headset but always talks on a cell). Desperate for inspiration for his next novel, he swipes a story from a teen’s literary contest submission and remains oblivious to the consequences. He’s a human non-sequitur, speaking with an uncannily froggy voice that starts in the back of his throat and then seems to come out through his nose, and parades around in outfits that combine Native American leisure wear with the finest pleather vests. His movements are strangely robotic, looking like an unathletic Frankenstein’s monster as he stumbles back from the righteous blows of the original author.

12182009_Armored.jpgLaurence Fishburne in “Armored”

Nimrod Antal’s taut thriller is motored by the no-frills performances of his unshaven cast, highlighted by the grunting decadence of Laurence Fishburne’s Baines, who leads a group of armored truck drivers to fake a heist and hide the money for themselves. When the plan falls apart, loyalties are divided and expire entirely as they slowly devour each other to the time-keeping clank of steel on steel, attempting to wrench open a reinforced vehicle door. Fishburne seems to revel in his aging body, puffing out his gut and emitting a chorus of groans, mutters and sighs as his flesh battles against him. Antal provides him with a slender backstory — he’s a married drunk — and Fishburne nails the cliché down so hard that it ends up ringing with truth. You can almost smell the alcohol in his sweat as he laughs too hard at bad jokes, simply to pass the time, and one waits for his self-loathing to spread outward into violence.

12182009_Zombieland.jpgBill Murray in “Zombieland” (Spoilers!)

Bill Murray is an oasis of subtlety and absurdity in the otherwise thuddingly conventional “Zombieland.” Essentially a romantic comedy spiced up with the undead, the film is a parade of clichés, product placement and eager overacting. But when the group of human survivors crash at Murray’s place, the rote narrative is suspended for a sequence of pure playfulness anchored by his classic deadpan. Wobbling in with a fake wig and fright makeup to fit in with the brain-eaters, he massages the cutesy pop-culture dialogue into serviceable punchlines. The whole Eddie Van Halen run is saved by his bluntly matter-of-fact delivery of “he’s a zombie,” paired with a nonchalant shoulder shrug to emphasize the banality of the situation. It’s a minor joke, but he makes it work through canny underplaying. His best bit, though, is his slow-burn exhale during his untimely demise, knowing exactly the number of beats it will take for the gag to register. But once he dies, the movie dies with it.

[Additional photos: “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” Paramount Vantage, 2009; “Gentlemen Broncos,” Fox Searchlight, 2009; “Armored,” Screen Gems, 2009; “Zombieland,” Columbia Pictures, 2009]

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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